05 Kallembach AntigoneJames Kallembach – Antigone
Lorelei Ensemble; Beth Willer
New Focus Recordings FCR331 (newfocusrecordings.com)

James Kallembach’s Antigone relocates Sophocles’ seminal Athenian tragedy to the landscape of Nazi Germany. His libretto draws inspiration from the tragic poetry found in Sophie Scholl’s diary. Scholl, a member of the non-violent student White Rose Movement was arrested and later guillotined – along with her brother Hans – by the Nazis in 1943.      

Kallembach’s Antigone unfolds in the impassioned struggle of the title character, a woman determined to fight for the truth amid tyranny. The struggle features Antigone and Ismene locking proverbial horns with their dictatorial uncle Creon. Kallembach’s narrative seamlessly weaves the characters’ lives in and out of Athens into the warp and weft of Nazi Germany. Members of the Lorelei Ensemble create a shimmering luminosity as they delicately vocalize the sisters and the powerful voice of Creon. In particular, Christina English, Sarah Brailey and Rebecca Myers Hoke sing with enormous sensitivity, superbly characterizing everyone from the sensitive Ismene to the powerful Creon and the tragic Antigone who is none other than Scholl. 

The Ensemble delivers this outstanding libretto, directed by the sensitive yet firm hand of Beth Willer. In particular the encounters between Scholl and Lisa Remppis, with words from the former’s diary entries, have a pared-down style, particularly effective in the vignettes from late March, 1942. The reading of Scholl’s pamphlets is expertly melded into the disturbing backdrop created by moaning cellos. Something elegant and different emerges after each hearing of this disc.

04 La ZingarellaLa Zingarella: Through Romany Songland
Isabel Bayrakdarian; Gryphon Trio; Juan-Miguel Hernandez; Mark Fewer
Avie Records AV2506 (avie-records.com/releases/la-zingarella-through-romany-songland)

Gypsies, Romanies, Zigeuner, Gitans – however they were named, the peripatetic people from north India who entered and traversed Europe in medieval times were everywhere scorned as mountebanks, maligned as thieves. Nevertheless, the wanderers’ music, with its exotic timbres, vibrant rhythms and soulful melodies, has been an enduring source of inspiration for innumerable composers, including the 11 on this CD.

Multi-Juno-winning soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, singing here in German, Czech, Spanish, French and English, is joined by violinist Mark Fewer, violist Juan-Miguel Hernandez and the Gryphon Trio performing vigorous, freshly created instrumental arrangements by Peter Tiefenbach and John Greer.

Accounting for 15 of the disc’s 27 tracks are two song-cycle masterworks known in English as “Gypsy Songs” – Brahms’ Zigeunerlieder, Op.103 and Dvořák’s Cigánské melodie, Op.55 (including the much-loved Když mne stará matka – “Songs My Mother Taught Me”). Three sassy, saucy Spanish songs by Sebastián Iradier are especially ingratiating; the third, El arreglito (Canción habanera), was the tune Georges Bizet borrowed and slightly modified for the CD’s following track – the Habanera from Carmen!

Bayrakdarian is in fine voice and exuberant high spirits for these mostly high-spirited selections, yet poignant or sensuous when appropriate. Songs by Franz Liszt, Joaquín Valverde and Henry F.B. Gilbert, plus arias from operettas by Maurice Yvain, Franz Lehár, Emmerich Kálmán and Victor Herbert, all reflect these composers’ admiration (not “appropriation”) of a marginalized ethnic minority’s distinctively spicy, rhapsodic music. This exhilarating cross-cultural excursion is enthusiastically recommended!

06 My LaiJonathan Berger; Harriet Scott Chessman – Mỹ Lai
Kronos Quartet; Vân-Áhn Vanessa Vo; Rinde Eckert
Folkways SFW CD 40251 (folkways.si.edu)

Every once and a while the invisible cosmic forces align in such a manner as to create art that is spectacularly dark and forbidding, yet utterly irresistible and monumental. For the operetta M Lai those forces fuelled its composers, the musician Jonathan Berger and the librettist Harriet Scott Chessman, who conspired to bring M Lai back to life with the great Kronos Quartet, traditional Vietnamese instrumentalist Vân Ánh Vanessa Võ and the ineffably brilliant vocalist Rinde Eckert. 

Ordinarily you would credit any operetta as having a fairly linear narrative line. But M Lai is no ordinary operetta. It is a revelation of an open wound in the history of the Vietnam War, one in which US soldiers’ massacred 504 South Vietnamese civilians in M Lai village. 

On this recording the terrifying narrative is woven into the howl of the Kronos strings and the roar of Eckert’s singing – voicing several characters who were involved in or witnessed the event. Meanwhile the evocative percussion colours of Võ’s instruments add an eerie contrapuntal voice, redolent of delicate tintinnabulation and ghostly echoes of mallets on metal keys,

Highly charged performances by the Kronos and Võ, employing the sound-mass textures of Berger’s orchestral work and the unearthing of the naked horror in Chessman’s libretto by Eckert, together make M Lai an unforgettable work of art. It is the most powerfully moving anti-war palimpsest since Picasso painted Guernica

08 Global WagnerGlobal Wagner: From Bayreuth to the World
A Film by Axel Brüggemann
Naxos 2.110708 (naxos.com/catalogue/item.asp?item_code=2.110708)

German director/scriptwriter/filmmaker Axel Brüggemann made this documentary film almost 140 years after composer Richard Wagner’s death. Brüggemann offers a look at and listen to Wagner’s life, music and his Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, by exploring and filming backstage at rehearsals and performances, and including countless Wagnerite fans, international Wagner societies around the world today and individual viewpoints about the enigmatic, controversial composer. Mostly in German with no voiceovers, the subtitles in English (among other languages) are legible.

Brüggemann’s journalistic documentary approach, with colourful scenic visuals throughout, is to be commended. The film opens in Venice, where Wagner lived, loving the city’s calmness, with breathtaking city clips, including fascinating emotional footage from the room where he died in 1883. Then to Bayreuth with astounding aerial views. Other worldwide sites include Newark New Jersey, Riga Latvia, Abu Dhabi, Tel Aviv and Tokyo, with these city visuals complementing interviews, concerts and fans, making this a “never leave your home” trip around the world. And the background Wagner music performances are perfect!

Lots to learn from the interviews with such Wagnerites as Bayreuth artistic director /business manager Katharina Wagner, conductor Christian Thielemann, operatic bass-baritone Kevin Maynor and American music critic Alex Ross, among others. Especially fun are day-to-day commentaries from Ulrike and Georg Rauch who own a butcher shop near the festival theatre. Emotional contrasting footage is of Jerusalem-based Jewish lawyer and chairman/founder of the Israel Wagner Society, Jonathan Livny, who is quoted in the liner notes as saying “Wagner was a terrible person but he wrote heavenly music.”

And viewers get up-close looks at rehearsals and performances. We see the Bayreuth orchestra musicians rehearse and set volume and dynamic levels, we watch stage hands move and place sets and hear director commentaries during sung/acted rehearsals and subsequent performance footage in the acoustically unique theatre. All are eye-opening. Lots of packed crowds of well-dressed fans of (surprisingly) all ages to see entering the theatre.

Short fragmented music, visuals and interview cuts are joined seamlessly together, making this an easy group of stories for all to follow about the world’s fascination for Wagner today.

01 Marianne LambertCanzone di Notte
Marianne Lambert; Valerie Milot
Fidelio FACD052 (mariannelambert.com)

The grand conception of this disc, intended to be in praise of bel canto, is instantly discernible. Why would it not be? Quebec soprano Marianne Lambert inhabits this repertoire, sliding into it as if into a second skin; musical secrets revealed from the tablet of her heart. 

The singer’s lustrous voice soars in melismatic and arpeggiated leaps, sometimes with sly, but glorious coloratura. She is an eminently graceful singer who can generate genuine pathos, as superbly captured on Vivaldi’s Sposa, son disprezzata or Rossini’s Giusto Ciel, in tal periglio!; conjure great hope as in Mozart’s Ridente la calma and Rossini’s La promessa; and unfettered joy on Donaudy’s Vaghissima sembianza

Lambert is an artist of the first order. She makes key phrases in these arias come alive and spring in balletic arcs, cutting through the still air of this room. She digs into the meaning of words and phrases and infuses their poetry with a sense of nostalgia and melancholy, painting the song’s fluid melodies with poignant candour.

With radiant chromaticisms and splendid sonorities the harpist Valérie Milot complements the plaintive soundworld of the characters played by the singer. Her notes are ideally weighed and measured, and fit perfectly onto Lambert’s vocals as if punctuating these songs with wistful and melancholy accents. Together Lambert and Milot create a grand edifice of song through this well-chosen repertoire.

03 Brian FieldBrian Field – Choral and Orchestral Works
Budapest Symphonic Orchestra and Choir; Lviv Philharmonic Society and Chorus; Composers’ Choir; Heelan Chorale
RMN Classical RMN70709 (brianfield.com)

I grew up in the Anglican tradition: high mass, chant choir in front, choir and organ in the loft behind, masses by Healey Willan, smells and bells, the lot. All this to say, “I get how American composer Brian Field can sound so English. His music is shamelessly ear-friendly, his instrumental writing idiomatic and choirs seem to revel in the beautiful sonorities he elicits from them.” I’m back as a bored altar boy dozing off amidst incense and anthems. Snapping awake to assure you this is a very enjoyable recording, I take issue with one reviewer’s pronouncement that Field “stretches tonality to and beyond its limits.” He seems quite content within tonality’s limits, whatever those are. 

Choral excellence from a variety of groups sets a standard not met by the instrumentalists of the Budapest Symphonic Orchestra. While the ensemble’s standards of rhythm and phrasing are acceptable, they seem casual regarding intonation; “stretched tonality” might have masked this, but Field’s tonal palette deserves more care. Carping aside, Shiva Tandava is a compelling concerto grosso and makes a nice change from the very fine choral writing. 

Perhaps more generous liner notes would explain how the Hindu god of destruction gets along with the reputedly benign Christian version, or at least what the title references. I’d appreciate knowing too, which choirs sing which of the various sacred (Christian) texts. His lovely setting of the Christina Rosetti poem In the Bleak Midwinter adds just a few pounds of tonal stretch to Gustav Holst’s version.

Listen to 'Brian Field: Choral and Orchestral Works' Now in the Listening Room

04 Sharon AzrieliSecret Places – A Tribute to Michel Legrand
Sharon Azrieli; Tamir Hendelman
LML Music (sharonazrieli.com)

The brilliant composer and pianist Michel Legrand died in 2019, and yet his work continues to resonate – not only in the films in which his compositions were heard, but in the many fine versions of his body of work that have been lovingly interpreted by international artists, including Canadian Sharon Azrieli. The arrangements and orchestrations on this fine collection were created by pianist Tamir Hendelman and Azrieli, who also co-produced the disc with David Merrill. First up is If There Were No Dreams (with lyrics by Neil Diamond). Azrieli brings her well-seasoned, classically trained and sibilant voice to this gentle, lilting and rarely performed ballad, while Lori Bell’s elegant flute and Alex Frank’s sinuous bass lines intertwine with an unaffected loveliness. Another delight is Secret Places – with snappy lyrics from master wordsmith, Alan Jay Lerner, the well-chosen title track displays the irrepressible joy of Legrand’s musical sensibility with a stunner of a piano solo by Hendelman and fine bass work by Frank.

Arguably, Legrand’s most constant collaborators were luminous lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman, bringing us many memorable compositions written for an array of fine films, including Les Moulins de Mon Coeur (better known as The Windmills of Your Mind) from 1968’s The Thomas Crown Affair.  Azrieli renders this excellent interpretation in English, and also in flawless French, expertly capturing the romance and passion of the cinematic plot. Also with the Bergmans, in What Are You Doing For the Rest of Your Life? Azrieli evokes an aura of deep emotion and mystery here – just as Legrand intended.

Two additional stunners include Watch What Happens and I Will Wait For You – with English lyrics by Norman Gimbel. Both of these gorgeous songs appeared in the equally gorgeous 1964 film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and feature fine soloing from Ricky Woodard on sax and Dean Koba on drums with Frank on bass. A superlative tribute to an eternal international artist.

01 Schubert WinterreiseSchubert – Winterreise
Nathaniel Watson; Michael McMahon
Leaf Music LM253 (leaf-music.ca)

Having been recorded well over 500 times, Winterreise remains one of the most beloved compositions by Schubert. Set to 24 poems by Wilhelm Müller, a poet, soldier and Imperial Librarian, this song cycle follows the journey of a heartbroken wanderer through the countryside. Narratively nothing much happens here, everything unfolds inside the protagonist. This music requires a high level of maturity and insight from both performers and listeners. From the darkness of Good Night, to the beautiful torment of On the Stream and the turbulence of The Stormy Morning, the intensity of Schubert’s music never lessens.

Nathaniel Watson, baritone, and Michael McMahon, piano, convey a world that is bleak and lonely, profound in its vulnerability yet, on the other end, almost exhilarated in its core. These two artists are well attuned to Schubert’s music, their phrasing impeccable and their synergy unmistakable. Originally written for tenor, Winterreise is frequently transposed to other voices. Baritone works particularly well, with its range of colours and a degree of masculinity. Watson’s voice is dark and expressive, adding a layer of intensity to the words. The piano, having an equal role to the voice, paints the winter imagery of the harsh natural elements such as storms and wind, and McMahon does it exuberantly. On the other hand, he parallels the emotional unrest expressed in the voice with a wonderful restraint.

Not for the faint of heart, this album is a heartfelt addition to the music libraries of contemplative listeners.

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02 Amour et FantasieAmour et Fantaisie – Melodies de Lionel Daunais
Dominique Côté; Esther Gonthier
ATMA ACD2 2839 (atmaclassique.com/en)

Canadian baritone Dominique Côté is world renowned for his opera and concert performances. Here Côté demonstrates his talented musicianship by singing his favourite songs by multi-talented Quebecer Lionel Daunais (1901-1982). Côté’s illustrious singing is accompanied with passion by Quebec pianist Esther Gonthier. 

Daunais’ popular, accessible songs are as wide-ranging as his career as a composer, singer/songwriter, performer, author, artistic director and radio host. Daunais sets his own lyrics brilliantly. Highlights include the opening track L’amour de moi with slightly atonal short piano intro, low-range-touching vocals, faster mid-section and “très” dramatic build to piano flourish and held note vocal closing. Four humourous Folklore songs include folksy, happy À Montréal, a city tribute with rhythms, a slower alternating section and entertaining spelling out of the letters Montréal closing. What Montreal food to eat drives Les patates, with operatic rhythmical lyrics mentioning potatoes, chips and even a federal election! Famous La tourtière is about its flavourful wonders, highlighted by back-and-forth answering of Côté’s clear lead vocals by Ensemble Vocal Charlevoix, under musical director Julie Desmeules. Daunais’ songs with texts by writers including Paul Fort, Paul Eluard and Éloi De Grandmont are equally entertaining.

Côté writes in his liner notes, “his music speaks to me and moves me,” which comes across in his Daunais homage, understandable even with my working knowledge of French. He loves these songs, and so should listeners!

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